Plant a tobacco seed in the Dominican Republic, it will have a certain taste. Plant the same seed in Nicaragua or Mexico, and it will turn out completely different. That was the primary lesson being taught at the Big Smoke seminar aptly entitled Unique Tobacco Farms and Valleys. It was hosted by Cigar Aficionado executive editor David Savona along with senior contributing editor Gordon Mott.
They both introduced a panel of three guests who expounded on the subject of tobacco and how specific regions will affect the tobacco's character: Alejandro Turrent of Mexico's A. Turrent Cigars, Rocky Patel who has expanded his Nicaraguan footprint with farms and a factory, and Carlos "Carlito" Fuente Jr., whose Arturo Fuente and Fuente Fuente OpusX brands have helped to legitimize the Dominican Republic as a major producer of premium cigars.
"When it comes to cigars, we don't hear the word terroir used that often," said Mott to the crowd of more than 500 cigar enthusiasts. "I liken the cigar industry to wine. As France has its Burgundy region or Australia has the Barossa valley Nicaragua has Estelí."
And Mexico has San Andrés, a fertile area that produces dark wrappers for the premium cigar industry. These wrappers are especially popular with cigars containing mostly Nicaraguan tobacco.
"Mexico has several regions," said Turrent, "but the most important is San Andrés in the south eastern part of the country near the gulf. The volcanic soil is very rich, as there are 200 volcanoes in the region and 6,000 acres in San Andrés where we can grow tobacco."
According to Turrent, Mexico has a long history of tobacco including Sumatra-seed tobacco since the 1950s and San Andrés Negro since the late 1800s.
"Negro is naturally dark and its complexity and sweetness makes it pair well with other tobaccos," he said.
Mott transitioned the conversation to the Dominican Republic. Carlos Fuente Jr. spoke reverentially about the land and recalls being awestruck when he first saw the lush flora of the Cibao Valley.
"Angel Oliva was a mentor to me," Fuente said "and he guided me to that area. The central area of the Cibao Valley is between two mountain ranges. Bonao is 560 miles above sea level. I remember first seeing all the Royal Palms growing and knew that it was a special place. The volcanic soil is very similar to Cuba's and it's also unique because it isn't as dark and heavy as the soil in Santiago. It receives a lot of rain, but the drainage is very good."
Fuente told the crowd of the travails associated with growing wrapper leaf in the Dominican Republic.
"We tried to grow wrapper there because we were told that it was impossible to grow good wrapper in the Dominican Republic," Fuente told the captive audience. "It was a disaster at first, but we never gave up. However I never imagined that I'd be able to accomplish such success. I think growing wrapper was a calling."
Rocky Patel, who entered the tobacco business in the 1990s, has expanded into Nicaragua, investing in a Nicaraguan factory as well as farms throughout Estelí and Condega.
"I was told that because I'm not Cuban or Latin, I don't belong in the industry," said Patel recalling the reception he received when he first submerged himself in the business.
"Nicaragua is a great region. The soil is very rich and black. It's rich in potassium and magnesium and produces flavorful tobacco. Estelí is known for producing tobacco with body and strength, Jalapa grows very aromatic tobacco and Condega is also a great area."
Patel continued about the challenges of maintaining consistency within a blend when using tobaccos from specific regions.
"People accept that wine will change from year to year with each vintage, but everyone expects the tobacco to taste the same every year no matter what," Patel said. "Climate conditions don't allow that and mother nature just doesn't work that way. We break it down to primings from different farms to maintain consistency. If weather changes during one growing season, we may have to take leaves from different portions of the tobacco plant to adjust for consistency. It's a challenge and an art, but the beauty is being able to take from different farms."
Fuente, who has his Chateau de la Fuente plantation in Bonao, likens the compound to Disneyland.
"Chateau is 300 acres, but we only cultivate 150," he said. "And we have to let a lot of that 150 acres of land to rest between seasons. You can plant the same seed on the same farm but get different characteristics from the tobacco just by planting the seed in a different place. The wind, the sun, and the way they hit the farm all make a difference."
On experimentation, the Turrents try to grow different varieties for both quality and bulk yield.
"In the '70s and '80s, our Te-Amo brand had a very simple blend. It was Sumatra wrapper and San Andrés Negro filler. The market wanted more complexity but we didn't have such a large selection of tobacco. Now, we are in a position to produce more variety."
Patel closed the seminar by mentioning one of the more existential aspects of tobacco agriculture.
"To be on a farm is very unique. Watching the sun hit the green rows of tobacco as the leaves flutter in the wind is one of my best pleasures. It's very tranquil to watch, even though you know you can't use any of that tobacco for three to four years."
This was the last seminar of the day. By this time, some smokers were on their second cigar while some were still slowly enjoying their first. A few attendees didn't smoke anything at all, opting to keep the packet intact for another time rather than participating in the interactive nature of the event.
Communal smoking is one of the central activities of Big Smoke. However, by the time the luncheon portion came around, these Big Smokers were required to leave their lit cigars behind. If they timed it properly, they were finishing up their cigars anyway. If not, there were more cigars to be had at lunch, which was hosted by Alec Bradley Cigars.